Officer's account reveals ineptness of troops

Researchers have yet to uncover an official report by an army officer of the Battle of Hungry Hill.

"Because of the loss, the battle was swept under the rug," said Mark Tveskov, noting that no officer wanted to be associated with a battle that was lost to a smaller group of foes.

"The price for failure could have been loss of a command or demotion."

But historian Ben Truwe has uncovered a letter from Lt. August V. Kautz to Gen. Joseph Lane in Washington, D.C., which he felt reflected the reality of the battle. Unlike memoirs written for public consumption, the private letter revealed the thoughts of one professional soldier to another, he said.

In the long letter from Fort Orford, dated Dec. 1, 1855, Kautz told Lane he had begged Capt. Andrew Jackson Smith, the commanding officer at Fort Lane, to bring the howitzer from the fort. The fort was named for Lane, who would become the governor of the Oregon Territory. Smith had informed him it was too late to fetch the howitzer, Kautz wrote.

"My experience had taught me that it would be no child's play and I also felt that the Indians would make a stand, yet they prepared for the fight as though they expected the Indians to run," Kautz said.

Although a "beautiful" battle plan was agreed upon which would have flanked the Indian encampment, the plan was not followed, he wrote.

"We set out about 12 o'clock on the night of the 30th and moved along with as much precision and silence as could have been desired at first, but the nearer we got to the enemy the more careless and noisy they were," he continued.

He wrote about several delays which cost the soldiers the element of surprise. Two officers accompanying Capt. Smith had "indiscreetly" filled their canteens with brandy instead of water, he wrote, noting that Smith wanted to sober up the officers before proceeding.

Before Smith started moving his men forward, a party of "harum scarum volunteers got the start of him and led the way down into a deep gulch some fifteen hundred feet which intervened between us and the enemy," Kautz wrote.

"Instead of complying with the plan of attack agreed upon and going around on the ridge the captain followed them, leaving his train and Lt. Alston, who was not yet sober," he added. "By the time we got up with the Indians, we were very much used up."

When a militiaman was killed and his body left along the battle route, the sight took the fight out of many of his surviving comrades, he wrote.

"This one dead man won the battle; two thirds of the men never got past this one dead body," Kautz wrote.

"The rest of the troops were behind and occasionally fired at those of our men in front who had the courage to advance towards the Indians," he added. "Everything was helter skelter."

The men were jumpy after they retreated down the hill that night to encamp at a nearby spring, he wrote.

"Everybody felt this so much so that when a tremulous volunteer on post accidentally pressed too hard upon the trigger of his revolver and off it went, so did everybody else for the brush, stumbling over the wounded, whose shrieks could be heard above the tumult," he noted.

"One sleepy volunteer, when the stampede (began), started out of his sleep, snatched up a musketoon and cracked away at what he conceived to be the enemy and wounded two of his brother volunteers, one mortally, and a third slightly," he added.

When the soldiers reached Grave Creek between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. the following night, they had not slept for three nights and had not food for 50 hours, he said.

"The great secret of the failure is that the volunteers expected the regulars to do all the fighting, whilst the regulars were expecting the same thing from the volunteers," he wrote. "I do not think much of the conduct of the officers, nobody attempted to lead the men."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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